The capture of Caesar Acellam, one of the top-ranking commanders in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), could prove vital in the fight against the Ugandan rebels and their elusive leader Joseph Kony.
Acellam, former intelligence chief of the LRA and the most senior LRA commander ever caught, surrendered after allegedly being ambushed by Ugandan soldiers in the Central African Republic (CAR). If he shares sensitive information regarding the LRA, his surrender could prove to be decisive for those forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and CAR hunting for the rebels. Acellam’s treatment by the Ugandan forces could also have an effect on remaining LRA rebels who could be encouraged to defect.
According to the Ugandan military, Acellam’s capture came as the result of careful planning and strategising over several weeks. Lieutenant Colonel Abdu, coordinator of intelligence, explained to Think Africa Press that Ugandan forces lay an ambush on the banks of River Mbomu, which separates CAR and DRC, and waited patiently for their opportunity.
“By laying an ambush for two weeks, we wanted something and we got it” Abdu explained. “His capture is a big blow to the LRA.”
Acellam is now being held by Ugandan forces and could be given amnesty by the Ugandan government. Defence Minister Crispus Kiyonga suggested this possibility but also insisted: “We assess each (amnesty) case on its merit. We are waiting for him to arrive and then we will take a cool-headed decision."
If Acellam were to be pardoned, this would come as a disappointment to some activists who want him tried for his crimes. Although not indicted by the International Criminal Court like some of his former colleagues, Acellam was high up in the LRA ranks. There also remains a possibility that other countries in which the LRA has committed atrocities, such as the DRC and CAR, will demand his trial in their own courts.
If Uganda were to charge Acellam, they might not only discourage the rebel from sharing information, but the trial itself is likely to face serious organisational challenges. The trial of LRA commander Thomas Kwoyelo for example, has been seriously impeded by inadequate resources, a lack of witness protection programmes, and insufficient outreach to explain the trial to the local community.
Acellam himself believes he should be awarded amnesty. “Parliament approved the amnesty law and I think those who come out of the bush have a right to enjoy this,” he told Think Africa Press.
He also explained that he was being well-looked after by the Ugandan army. “I feel free,” he said, “I have no fear because they have not done anything bad to me. You can even see the way we are talking. This has encouraged me to think in I’m in good hands”.
Indeed, another reason for giving Acellam amnesty would be that it might encourage other rebels to give themselves in too. Speaking about the remaining soldiers running with the LRA, Acellam said: “They should come out. They shouldn’t worry to get out of the bush because I’m now in the hands of government and nothing bad has happened to me.”
As the LRA’s former intelligence chief, Acellam may hold useful information for the forces hunting the LRA and Kony. It is important to note at the same time, however, that more recently Acellam has only been a field commander, since a 2002, injury. “Kony is a senior commander and it’s hard to pass the message to him”, he claimed.
Kony and Acellam fell out during the Juba peace negotiations (2006-2008), which ultimately failed. As the talks went on with the Ugandan government, Kony allegedly started losing trust in Acellam and Vicent Otti, LRA’s second-in-command, believing that they were getting too close to the Kampala regime.
Eventually, Kony ordered Otti's execution. Captured LRA fighters later claimed that Otti had been tied to a tree and shot multiple times. They also reported that his body remained unburied for three days, presumably to strengthen the spirit of the mystical Kony. Acellam, however, escaped the same fate but decided to remain in the bush.
His capture could now provide a significant boost in the hunt for Kony and could prove a turning point in the current military attempt to end the conflict.
Correction 23/5/2012: The article originally stated that the Juba peace negotiations look place in 2002 rather than 2006-2008. This has now been corrected.
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